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Monthly Archives: September 2014

Heartbreak

Regret

I’m working with a student right now who is heartbroken. I’ve always been bothered by how adults distinguish puppy love from “real” love.  I remember when I was in grad school a fellow student was talking about how boring it would be to work in a counseling center where all you do is help students with insignificant problems like breakups. No one questions that divorce is painful, but heartbreak as a teenager or young adult is apparently no big deal.

It took me a long time to get over my first love from high school. It also took a long time to get over my divorces.  I can’t say that my pain was more real or more legitimate as an adult than it was in my teens. And to be honest, I’m not sure I have been any wiser about falling in love or more mature at handling heartbreak than I was when I was a teenager. I feel like I keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

I  think that dismissing someone’s feelings as puppy love is just one of many examples of how we trivialize emotions in general. We judge some feelings as being more or less legitimate.  Puppy love is not to be taken seriously. You can’t be angry without a good reason. It’s better to be depressed if you have a “chemical imbalance.”

And because we haven’t learned helpful ways to deal with pain, we try to push people along too quickly.  So we tell them that they are better off. Tell them to suck it up. Shame them out of their feelings if we have to.

I never talked much about how I felt when I’ve had my heart broken. Certainly not as much as I wanted to. I knew that I wouldn’t hear what I needed to hear. At the time I couldn’t even articulate what I needed to hear, but now I can. I needed someone to tell me that my feelings counted. That my pain was real. And that when I was ready to move on, I would.

This is still what I need to hear, even if I’m just saying it to myself. And this is what I tell my clients when they are heartbroken. And I keep repeating it until they are ready to move on.

Will Power

Like many of my middle-aged friends, I am trying to lose weight. I am not as obsessed about it as I was when I was younger and thinner because I am more accepting of my body now. But that also means I am less motivated. It’s even hard to will myself to do 10 minutes of stretching every day. 

In order to improve my motivation, I decided to look at some info on a workshop that I used to give on self-leadership. Good stuff. I ought to try it some time.

Here are some reasons why will power fails us:

1. We are more motivated to take action when things are going poorly than when things are going well. That’s why negative events stand out more than positive events: negative events require us to make some change. If things are going well, we can just maintain status quo. That’s also why anxious people like myself are often highly motivated–because almost everything feels like a crisis.

2. As we make progress towards our goal, we lose motivation because it takes more effort. This is related to the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule: 80% of our results comes from the first 20% of our effort. After that, it takes 80% of our effort to achieve the last 20% of the results.

For example, it is often easy for people to lose weight initially with minimal changes to their diet and exercise routine. But it takes a lot more effort to lose the last 10 pounds. So much so that people on diets are often perpetually stuck in the “I just need to lose 10 more pounds” stage.

3. The amount of will power we have is limited. Reseach by Roy Baumeister indicates that trying to exert self-control in one area of our lives leaves us less energy to exert self-control in other areas. So if you’re trying to change your eating habits, you will have less energy available to start exercising and vice versa. That’s why it’s better to focus on changing one thing at a time.

Despite these obstacles, it is possible to reach our goals. People do it all the time. So why not me? And why not you?

Here are some of the things that characterize people with willpower:

1. They try to understand why they’re not motivated. I was not motivated to lose weight for awhile because I just wouldn’t look at pictures of myself so that I could exist in a state of denial. That helped me avoid psychic pain, but now I think I need to be in a little discomfort. I don’t want to beat myself up over it, but I need to be honest with myself about how much weight I’ve gained.

2. They use their values to guide their behavior. Tennis is the greatest motivator for me. I want to play tennis for as long as I live, and doing so will require cross-training. So maybe I will try to remember this when I am feeling unmotivated.

3. They give themselves permission to fulfill their wants without feeling guilty. Because I work with students with eating disorders, I try to be careful about the message that I give about body image and I worry about how they will perceive my weight loss. But the reality is, my reasons for wanting to lose weight as a middle-aged woman are not the same as the reasons that students with eating disorders have. I can allow myself to honor my own needs. 

I know it’s still going to be hard, but perhaps writing this post will help me be more motivated. It certainly can’t hurt.

This tote has nothing to do with weight loss but it required a lot of will power because it was boring. It turned out nicely, though, so maybe I’ll knit another one.

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Hard Core Fan, Part 2

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Sometimes being a loyal fan is downright painful. Today UVA and Roger Federer are both playing. Right now I’m excited about it, but while I’m watching, if the games are close, it will be torture.

A few nights ago Federer came back from 2 sets and 2 match points down to beat Gael Monfils. If I just wanted to see a good match, I could have enjoyed myself. Instead, I was praying the whole time, asking God to let Federer win. I know this probably isn’t a good use of prayer, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Thank goodness he won.

The only problem is, the chronic pain in the back of my neck due to stress returned the following morning. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Hopefully, I will watch two more matches before the U.S. Open is over. If they’re close, I may have to schedule a massage next week.

UVA had an equally stressful match last week when they played UCLA. Even though it was the season opener, we had the lowest attendance ever because we only won twice last year. But my brother and I were there, being the loyal fans that we are. UCLA was #7 in the country and have a quarterback who was a Heisman candidate, although he may not be any more. Even though we were 21 point underdogs, we had a chance to win at the end, so of course I resorted to prayer to help the team along.

We lost 20-28, but it was as close as you can get to a win without actually winning. In fact, UCLA  dropped to #11 in the polls. I have never heard of a team dropping so far after a win. Apparently barely beating UVA is equivalent to a loss–which makes us look good and bad at the same time.

Despite the pain in my neck and the time spent in fervid prayer, these are the moments you live for when you’re a hard core fan. Sometimes your loyalty pays off and you get to witness a spectacular comeback. Sometimes you drive 2 hours and sit in the rain for 4 hours, only to watch your team lose the 8th game in a row.

But as with all things in life, the joy is in the process. In the anticipation of the match up. The possibility of an 18th grand slam win or a bowl game bid. And regardless of the outcome, you get to start all over again, with another game to look forward to.

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Nostalgia

Nostalgia

Today I heard a song on the radio that reminded me of my first husband. Memories of him come up every day–sometimes multiple times a day. Depending on the memory, I may feel a variety of emotions, but I almost always miss him. I almost always wish he could still be in my life.

I’ve always liked romantic movies like “Bridges of Madison County” where two people love each other but can’t be together. I guess in some ways the appeal is that you can experience the intensity of their love without having to be in pain yourself. Because in real life it’s pretty terrible, living with so much longing.

I know I’m not unique in this regard. I’ve seen the Facebook posts where people remember someone they love. I’ve heard people say the pain never goes away–that you just get used to living with it. The prospect of losing someone I love and facing a lifetime of pain has always terrified me. And then I remember that it has already happened.

It’s not that I spend my life pining away for him. I have a good life. I have a loving family and good friends. I love my job. I love tennis and blogging and college football. I have things to look forward to–like Federer being in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. (So exciting!) And yet the sadness is still there, right alongside the happiness.

People have this misconception that you can’t experience positive and negative feelings at the same time, and this is perpetuated by the field of positive psychology. That’s why they tell you to think happy thoughts and count your blessings and remind yourself of why you’re better off without him. These strategies help some, but they don’t make the sad feelings go away.

I don’t allow myself to pray that God will put him in my path again. That would be too close to having hope, and I’m afraid to have hope. That seems like a delusion that wouldn’t serve me well.

Today I considered the possibility that God hasn’t put him in my path for a reason. Perhaps he is a different person from the one I knew, and I wouldn’t like this person as much. Perhaps knowing about his life would hurt me more than not knowing.

The scene that stands out to me the most in “Bridges of Madison County” is when Meryl Streep tells Clint Eastwood that she can’t run away with him because eventually it would turn what is extraordinary about their love into something ordinary. That they would grow resentful of one another and their resentment would destroy their love altogether. That the only way to preserve their love is to walk away from it.

I’ve had many opportunities to pursue the ones that got away, and the encounters were ultimately disappointing; the fantasy was always better than the reality. And now I have no fantasies left to sustain me. No daydreams about what might have been if I had chosen a different path. In some ways it’s a good thing because I don’t have to live with regret. But there is something to be said for having something that you can dream about.

Perhaps God is allowing me to keep my dream without giving reality a chance to destroy it. Perhaps God is helping me to preserve the memory of our love as I knew it. That possibility gives me some comfort–for the moment, at least.

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

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Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.

 

Imagination

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Once when my brother was manic he thought he was the smartest person in the world. I don’t think he did anything with this newfound knowledge; I think it probably just felt good to believe he was intellectually superior. He also did stuff like show up at people’s houses unexpectedly to collect long overdue debts and convince telemarketers to go out on dates with him. This is one of the reasons why people who are bipolar don’t want to take their meds; who wouldn’t want to feel invincible?

While I haven’t reached the heights of mania that he has, I have what could be considered delusions of grandeur. For example, ever since high school I have been convinced that I am going to be a famous writer some day. I would ask whoever I was with how they felt about the fact I was going to be famous–whether they minded that they would be in the limelight and whether they would feel threatened by my success.

I still believe this. I’ve read all the stuff that says that the J.K. Rowlings and Elizabeth Gilberts of the world are the exception rather than the rule, but I’m not really deterred by  it. I don’t usually admit this to people because it does sound a bit delusional, but it’s a nice reprieve from feeling like I suck.

And it’s a helpful delusion. Anyone who aspires to do something great has to believe the odds are in their favor. Otherwise, why try? It’s hard to walk that line between believing that you are destined for greatness and being manic, but people do it all the time. So why not me? I have decent balance.

In The Secret Life of Bees, Zach is a black kid who wants to be a successful lawyer in the South during the Civil Rights era. Lily tells him she’s never heard of a Negro lawyer. That you have to hear of these things before you can imagine them. He counters that you have to be able to imagine what’s never been.

I would take this a step further. Our imaginations are actually fairly limited; we can’t envision all of the possible outcomes. Perhaps I  won’t write some best seller, like I have always imagined. Perhaps success will happen in a completely different way. Someone could decide to make tennis skirts out of my patterns, for example. Or maybe it will be something else that I can’t conceive of from my limited viewpoint of the present.

I try to bring myself back to reality. Don’t get your hopes up. Maybe all you will accomplish is to help a few more people than you do through therapy–which would be worth it, too.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you can’t fail if you never stop trying.

Sensitivity

I am reading The Secret Life of Bees for book club, and I love it! I know it’s old, but in our last meeting we discussed which books made us wish we could spend more time with the characters, and one of the members mentioned this one. I can see why. I love all of the characters, too. Well, maybe not June so much. She’s a little too guarded for me. Although I wish I could be more like August, the matriarch of the sisters, I am actually more like May–the fragile one who feels other people’s pain too deeply. Not as deeply as she did, thank goodness. But more so than I would like sometimes.

On the one hand, I recognize that it is a gift to have such a keen sense of empathy. I know I have helped a lot of people because of it. But I am also easily thrown off balance when the people I care about are in pain–especially since I am also prone to depression and anxiety. I have always assumed this meant that I was weak. Fragile. Too sensitive.

I spent time with my brother this weekend–the only one of the four siblings who does not have a mood disorder. In talking to him, it was clear that he does not experience his feelings as intensely as I do. He does not get his feelings hurt very often. He is better able to maintain distance from family drama, and his advice really is to tell them to suck it up.

I envy him for this, but I cannot be him. I can only be me. I feel things intensely. My feelings get hurt easily. And when someone is in pain, I feel what they feel and try to help them, even if it hurts me.

But rather than berate myself for it, I am learning to accept that this is who I am. We all have different vulnerabilities. Some people may be prone to heart disease. Other people have diabetes. I am a hyperempath with depression and anxiety. Therefore, I have to be sure to take care of myself in certain ways: make alone time a priority, set boundaries, and be more selective about who I spend time with.

I used to joke that I’m not trying to save the world–just the people that I meet. But perhaps I will have to narrow down my scope in my life-saving efforts, too.